Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Saving Courthouse Records - A Cause Worth Pursuing

Earlier I posted about the courthouse fire in the town I grew up in - Madison, Indiana.

It turns out that the fire may have destroyed more than the roof of the building. Associated Press quotes county attorney Will Goering:
"There's no loss of life, just a lot of things and the building will be restored so we'll move on and it will be better for the next 200 years," Goering said.

As of Thursday afternoon, he said county officials had not yet been allowed into the courthouse due to the continuing investigation by the state fire marshal and others.

But he expects many of the courthouse's store of documents -- including deeds, marriage and divorce records, adoption records and genealogy documents -- were damaged or destroyed by flames or the water firefighters poured on the building to save it.

"There's several feet of water in the basement and that's where a lot of the records were stored," Goering said.

Officials from the state archivist's office will be helping in efforts to salvage those documents, many of which date to the early 1800s.

Among the items Goering fears were lost is a book signed by every attorney who ever practiced in the county. That book was kept in the circuit court on the gutted third floor.

"We'll have to see if we can locate that book. It's that sort of thing that will be irreplaceable," he said. "There are certainly many relics and documents we'll never recover."
The sad fact is we have records in courthouse across the state that are every bit as vulnerable as those records that were destroyed in the Jefferson County Courthouse fire. Years ago I was told by a Marion County Clerk that most of the records in the basement of the City-County Building are not backed up. She was concerned that a fire could wipe out those documents. However, she said she simply did not have the funds to hire people to copy the paper documents to an electronic format.

Fires, floods, and tornadoes can easily wipe out paper records forever. If you look back at the history of Indiana courthouses, you will find many occasions when fires in those buildings destroyed public records. Today with technology, it is possible to make an electronic copy of those documents, storing the copies in an alternative location so a disaster won't wipe out the history of our Hoosier ancestors and the lives they lived. A project to copy these documents electronically is a project that the State should consider pursuing.

1 comment:

Brad Manzenberger said...

Several years ago I ran for Johnson County Recorder. My campaign issue for that race was bringing the Recorder's Office into the 21st Century by using the Internet more by allowing people to file certain documents and pay fees online. I also suggested we start digitizing the older documents so family historians and others could access them without having to travel to Franklin to view them in person.

My opponent, who won the election, responded to my idea by saying only that it was a good idea but it couldn't be done in four years so she wasn't going to consider it. Eight years have passed and this project still needs to get started. I wonder how much she could have completed by now if she would have started when she took office?